Public monuments are never just about the past. What we choose to memorialize, and how, is more about the present, what we want to remember, and how we hope to shape the future.
History should not be forgotten, and it shouldn't be buried. But we don't have to build statues to errors, or evil. And we don't have to maintain memorials to great acts of wrongdoing, just because they are "part of history." There's a difference between remembering and honouring.
The former is necessary. The latter is a choice, and in some cases, after the facts of history are faced honestly, a choice that should be revisited and reversed.
It's an issue that Americans are grappling with right now. And it's one Canadians have recently been asked to consider, in the case of historical sites in Montreal, Halifax and other places.
Does respecting the past mean changing nothing, and leaving any monument already erected in place? Or should memorials representing a person or group not 100 per cent in accord with the values of this moment be toppled, immediately?
Finding the right balance means avoiding what historians call presentism, which means judging past events entirely through the beliefs of the ever-changing present. But it doesn't mean putting on moral blinders. Instead, ask: What exactly is being memorialized? Is the memorial celebrating wrong-doing, or something and someone good and great who nevertheless was marked by other, lesser wrongs?
Consider the hundreds of Confederate monuments in the U.S. South. On balance, most should come down, like the Confederate battle flags that long flew over public buildings.
Yes, the monuments are part of history. They exist because of the most violent and bloody event in American history, the Civil War. Half of the country went to war with the United States of America. The primary cause of the bloodshed was slavery, namely the fact that the South – home to all of those Confederate monuments – wanted to remain a slave-holding country, and wanted slavery expanded to territories beyond the South.
The monuments, honouring Southern soldiers, generals and politicians, are part of a history that can't be forgotten, and must not be. However, most of the Confederate monuments were not erected as politically neutral memorials to the hundreds of thousands of fallen men, each of whom was after all somebody's son or husband, brother or father.
A graveyard should not be desecrated, but the monuments being fought over today are not graveyards. Most were put up long after the Civil War. They were generally created for the explicit purpose of celebrating the rebel cause, and advocating for the idea that the South should hold to the ideals of racial segregation, discrimination and subjugation of blacks by whites.
Those monstrous Confederate beliefs were not blemishes on an otherwise positive history. (That's why no one should favour removing statues of Washington or Jefferson). They were the fundamental principles of the economy, politics and laws of the Confederate States. Those ideas lost the Civil War, but they won the post-war in the South, re-imposing segregation and denying legal rights to black Americans. Those Confederate principles continued to govern the South until the 1960s – and the monuments were about advocating for their maintenance and continuation.
Consider the greatest Confederate monument of them all, Stone Mountain in Georgia. On a towering hillside is the largest bas-relief sculpture in the world – featuring Confederate generals Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson, and Confederate States President Jefferson Davis. The site is where the second Ku Klux Klan was founded in 1915; at about the same time, the idea of a massive carving of the South's leaders was conceived.
The work stalled for years – and was only finished when, in the midst of the Civil Rights movement and Southern white resistance to it, the governor of Georgia at the time, a segregationist, convinced the state legislature to buy the site and complete the monument. The message was clear.
It's why Martin Luther King Jr., in his "I Have a Dream" speech, said Stone Mountain was one of the mountainsides in the still-segregated South from which he hoped to "let freedom ring." When he spoke, that Confederate memorial was still under construction.
Post-war Germany may have lessons for the U.S. Across Germany, there are cemeteries to that country's war dead. These sites are respected and well-maintained, and should be. And there are all sorts of historical markers of Germany's Nazi history, so that people never forget. But there are, obviously, no public memorials honouring Nazi Germany's leaders. The idea is absurd.
The same should go for statues in American public squares celebrating not lost soldiers, but the leaders of a pro-slavery rebellion – a rebellion against America's best and most admired ideals.